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December 2010The monthly newsletter by Felgall Pty Ltd

My Word

Graphical Interfaces

The whole point of graphical interfaces when they were first introduced was that they provide an application programming interface (API) which provides all of the common functionality that programs require. So instead of each program having to create its own menus,, toolbars, etc completely from scratch, the program could instead call the API functionality and supply just the minimum information of what to display and what it links to and let the API determine exactly how it looks and functions.

By having programs use a common API it means that all the programs look and function in similar ways. All the programs would use a similar title bar completewith standard resize and move functionality, the menus and toolbars etc. would also work the same way, and the API would also provide a standard way to access the hardware so that for example the API would contain the common functionality required to print to any printer with the printer specific portion being provided by a 'driver' instead of each program needing to have support built in for every separate printer that it needs to support.

When this concept was firast developed there were a number of competing interfaces each of which provided a different way to add this type of functionality to the DOAS operating system (which at that time was also available in several different variants from different companies). Some of these interfaces were GEM, Deskview, Topview and Windows. None of them caught on and few programs were written to support them.

When Microsoft started developing their new OS/2 operating system they built a custom graphical interface for it as an optional part of the operating system itself. As this operating system was taking some time to develop Microsoft decided to try again with an updated graphical interface for DOS. They were in partnership with IBM at the time and so had access to IBM's Topview interface code as well as their own windows and OS/2 GUI code. By combining the best features of all three of these together they came up with a new improved graphical interface they called Windows 2. It too was ignored.

Even when Microsoft released OS/2 in 1987 there was little interest in graphical interfaces.but three years later Microaoft (who by then had broken up with IBM) decided to have another go at it and released Windows 3.0 which again was initially ignored. Microsoft though decided not to give up on it so quickly and made some minor changes to produce Windows 3.1 and that then caught on as the first graphical interface for DOS that both provided the necessary API and which became popular enough for those writing programs to create versions of their programs to run on it. In fact it became so popular that it dominated the market and effectively eliminated the market for programs that didn't run on Windows.

Microsoft really wanted to switch people over to their OS/2 operating system though and since IBM retained rights to the name after the bustup, Microsoft needed a new name for the second version of their OS/2 operating system (both companies had rights to the code). To cash in on the popularity of their new interface Windows 3.1 Microsoft decided to call thir second version of OS/2 - Windows New Technology 3.1 (or winNT 3.1 for short). It was built using a new 32 bit version of the OS/2 operating system and had a graphical interface that looked identical to Windows 3.1 and so provided far more power than was available using the 16 bit DOS with Windows 3.1. Unfortunately it didn't gain as much support as Microsoft wanted and with the competition from IBM's second version of OS/2 called OS/2 2.0, Microsoft decided that a fourth version of their Windows interface for DOS was needed.

Microsoft went all out with this new version of Windows and incorporated into it many of the features that IBM had already put in their version of OS/2 but implemented in an entirely different way. They also decided to incorporate it directly into DOS so that it wouldn't be available to run on their competitors DOS versions. When they then released it as Windows 95 the huge marketing campaign and resultant popularity effectively killed off the competing versions of DOS and reduced IBM's OS/2 to a niche product (which IBM subsequently recognised when they renamed version five of their OS/2 to eComstation).

The new DOS7/Win4 combination released as Windows 95 did nothing to promote Microsoft's better operating system even when the equivalent to the Windows 95 interface was incorporated into the third version - Windows NT4. Microsoft released a patch upgrade to their DOS based GUI as Windows 98 and then decided to make another attempt at getting people to move to their proper 32 bit operating system by treleasing version 4 as Windown 2000. At the same time they released a final version of DOS with a lot of the functionality removed as Windows Millennium. Again there was little movement away from DOS and Microsoft decided that since they now effectively owned the operating system market that they could force people to switch across by simply not producing any more DOS based operating systems.

Microsoft renamed their OS/2 based operating system again for its fifth version - they called it Windows XP. With no more new DOS based operating systems around people now had no choice but to move away from the antiquated 16 bit operating system onto a proper 32 bit one.The long period over which this was the only operating system being installed on new computers and the fact that it worked very similarly to the prior two OS/2 versions (NT4 and 2000) and the most popular DOS version (Windows 98) meant that computers effectively became a commodity item with people being able to buy just about any computer and install whatever software they wanted on it and know that it would work exactly the same as on any other computer.

The system of menus and toolbars had become fairly standardised across all programs and you just needed to be able to find the menu that contained the option you wanted to use. Even the alternative operating systems used by minority groups used graphical interfaces that provided similar menus and toolbars.

I suppose Microsoft decided that the way programs worked was becoming too familiar because their next step was to completely redesign everything. Version 6 of their OS/2 operating system which they called Vista was a complete disaster. The 2007 version of their office suite replaced all the menus and toolbars with a new ribbon bar. Now while the ribbon may be a 'better' interface for people new to using software to use, there are a huge number of people out there who had spent many years using the menu/toolbar method of running their software and Microsoft didn't even provide an option for these people to continue to use the interface that they were used to.

Challenges to Microsoft's dominance are growing with alternate operating systems and alternate office suites growing in popularity and with alternate web browsers having already claimed a significant share of the market. Google is about to release a new operating system of their own. So what does Microsoft do? They release a new seventh version of their operating system and 2010 version of their office suite where the interfaces are all changed again (addmittedly in relatively minor ways compared to their prior change). It is almost as if Microsoft is now actively trying to push pople to use their competitors products.
 

On Site

The above article wasn't exactly what I had intended to write as Ii had initially intended to write about the way Microsoft changed the way navigation worked between XP and Vista but it turned into a brief history or graphical interfaces as I wrote it. I am making progress with the site conversion but you will not see any effect until I am close to finishing as I am writiing and testing a script to do the conversion for me. For my javascript.about.com site I am writing a whole series of example JavaScript pages to demonstrate how that language works.
 

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